Empty buses in Bangladesh as no Rohingya turn up for repatriation

Fresh push to repatriate Rohingya refugees to Myanmar fails amid demands of safety and full citizenship.

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    Empty buses in Bangladesh as no Rohingya turn up for repatriation
    Empty buses at Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]

    Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh - Ambia is crying as she holds her one-year-old daughter on her lap outside their makeshift shelter in Cox's Bazar's Shalbagan camp for Rohingya refugees.

    "If we go back there, we will die," she said on Thursday, visibly reluctant to share her last name. "They have killed our families. We don't know what lies there."

    At the neighbouring Leda camp, Sultan Ali looked agitated. "I would rather commit suicide than go back to Myanmar," he said.

    Ambia and Ali were among nearly 3,500 Rohingya in Bangladesh who refused a United Nations-led bid to repatriate them to Myanmar over safety concerns.

    The refugees were cleared for repatriation following a joint exercise led by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Bangladesh government.

    Officials working in Cox's Bazar, which hosts one of the largest refugee camps in the world, said no Rohingya turned up to embark on the buses and trucks they had arranged for the exercise.

    Bangladesh refugee commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam told Al Jazeera that no refugee wanted to go back voluntarily.

    "We can't and didn't force them to go back," he said. "Repatriation to their own home country was completely up to the refugees and they clearly weren't convinced enough."

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    In 2017, nearly 740,000 Muslim-majority Rohingya fled what the UN called a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing" by Myanmar's military in the Rakhine state.

    Bangladesh was already hosting some 200,000 Rohingya when the 2017 exodus began. Sunday marks the second anniversary of the crackdown.

    Myanmar refuses to recognise the Rohingya as an ethnic group and denies them citizenship, rendering them stateless.

    The latest attempt to send them to Myanmar was made after a previous one failed in November last year.

    Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, August 9, 2018 [File: orin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
    Some 740,000 Rohingya fled a military offensive in 2017 in Rakhine state, Myanmar [File: Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera] 

    Five main demands

    Ali and others at the refugee camps held a paper which they said contained five of their main demands. The first is the right to be called a Rohingya.

    "They [people in Myanmar] don't even call us by our identity. How can we go back there?" Ali asked.

    The other four demands included full citizenship of Myanmar, safety and security after repatriation, the return of their homes and lands lost in the conflict, and justice for the crimes committed against them.

    "We will go back only if we are granted full citizenship," said 35-year-old Farhana Begum, who has two children. "At least we have shelter here."

    Farhana said she feared her family would be killed if they returned to Myanmar.

    "We need a real guarantee of citizenship, security and promise of original homelands. So we must talk with the Myanmar government about this before repatriation," Rohingya leader Muhammad Islam said. 

    Rohingya demands for repatriation [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]
    Rohingya presented five demands before any repatriation is done [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]
    Farhana Begum said she fears her family will be killed if they return to Myanmar [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]
    Farhana Begum said she fears her family will be killed if they return to Myanmar [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]

    "As you can see that we have no one to repatriate, so we are closing our day's operation," Kalam told Al Jazeera while sitting at his office inside the Kutupalong camp, the largest Rohingya settlement in Cox's Bazar.

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    The UNHCR said it respects the decision of the refugees and will continue to work towards building trust among them.

    "Over the past few days, together with Bangladeshi officials, UNHCR has visited refugee families in their shelters to establish whether they wish to return to Myanmar. So far, none of those interviewed have indicated a willingness to repatriate at this time," the UN body said in a statement.

    Delwar Hossain, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University, told Al Jazeera that it is natural for the Rohingya refugees to refuse to go back.

    "Myanmar has built transit camps and has been in talks with the Bangladesh government for repatriation. But the ground reality is quite different. These people have seen unspeakable violence perpetrated against them," he said.

    Additional reporting by Abdul Aziz from Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News